Tuesday, June 10, 2008;
With economic distress so high, and with John McCain
claiming national security as his trump card, Democrats may again be
tempted to play down foreign affairs so they can turn the election into
a fight over domestic questions about which McCain has had little to
Evading national security, says Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.),
would be a disastrous mistake. “The only way we lose this election is
not to engage this issue head-on,” Biden said during an interview in
his Capitol office the day after Obama clinched the nomination.
Democrats, Biden said, should be “proactive” and not “play defense on
foreign affairs” because “the case against McCain and Bush on national
security is so overwhelming. . . . It should be an essential part of
the case for the Democratic nominee.”
I visited with Biden because he should be at the top of any list of
vice presidential picks for Obama. Why Biden? In part because of where
he took our discussion: Few Democrats know more about foreign policy,
and few would so relish the fight against McCain on international
affairs. Few are better placed to argue that withdrawal from Iraq will
strengthen rather than weaken the United States.
The worst thing in a running mate is the fear of muddying his or her image in political combat. Biden would be a happy warrior.
He was born in Scranton, Pa., an essential state for Democrats, and has been a regular in the Philadelphia media market. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell,
himself a plausible No. 2, has called Biden “a perfect fit.” The
senator has been through two of his own presidential campaigns, in
which he experienced what an acquaintance of his called the “white-hot
heat” of scrutiny.
Biden is Catholic and hails from a blue-collar world, two constituencies with which Obama needs help. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former chairman of the Judiciary Committee,
Biden speaks with real learning on international affairs and the
judiciary — the next vacancies on the Supreme Court should be a big
issue in this campaign — while never sounding like an elitist.
But the central reason to pick Biden is the message the choice would
send about Obama’s readiness to contest national security issues and
his understanding that fixing American foreign policy must be one of
the next president’s highest priorities.
Biden has been critical of Bush’s approach to Iraq and the world for
the right reasons, and from the beginning. In the fall of 2002, he
tried, with Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar,
to pass a more modest war resolution that put additional constraints on
Bush. Richard Gephardt, the House Democratic leader then,
short-circuited the effort by cutting a deal with the president. Even
before the war began, Biden was warning of the costs of a lengthy
occupation and predicting a decade-long intervention.
He is also frank about his misunderstanding of what Bush would do. At one point, he thought Bush was reluctant to start a war.
“I vastly underestimated the total incompetence of this crew,” he
says. “I could not fathom that they would do what they did under the
circumstances they did it.”
To restore its strength and influence, the United States needs to
return to the realistic internationalism of FDR, Truman and, yes, the
first President Bush. Whether or not Obama picks Biden, he should
listen to what Biden is saying. Obama can’t sidestep the foreign policy
debate. He has to win it.